Alva and Gunnar Myrdal Know 'The Great Happiness of Living to Be Very Old and Together'
Gunnar Myrdal is a Nobel Prize-winning economist, author of a landmark study of racism in the U.S. and an international social critic and curmudgeon. His wife, Alva Reimer Myrdal, is a feminist, diplomat and antiwar activist who has been called "the conscience of the disarmament movement."
In addition to their hectic, globe-trotting lives, Alva once helped draw up a political tract suggesting that divorce be made easier. They also have a tendency to forget anniversaries.
It would be tempting to speculate that the Swedish couple's relationship could never endure—if their marriage were not already in its 56th year. "Even when duty makes us sail apart," says Alva, 78, "we're still consort battleships."
Their careers are studded with achievements. Alva's definitive 1976 text, The Game of Disarmament, and arms control work earned her the first Albert Einstein Peace Prize Foundation award this May, worth $50,000.
Gunnar, 81, shared the 1974 economics Nobel with Friedrich von Hayek for "pioneering work in the theory of money and economic fluctuations." Thirty years before, Myrdal published An American Dilemma, a monumental investigation into the racism behind the U.S.'s veneer of equality.
Gunnar and Alva met 61 years ago. He and two cycling companions stopped to rest one night at her grandfather's farm, where she was staying. After making breakfast for the young men the next morning, Alva joined them. "Gunnar and I started to talk," she recalls, "and we've never stopped talking since."
One of five children, Alva Reimer grew up 60 miles west of Stockholm in Eskilstuna, where her father was a contractor. She graduated from the University of Stockholm in 1924 (the year she and Gunnar were married) and 10 years later received her M.A. from Uppsala.
Gunnar's family lived in Gustafs in Dalecarlia province in central Sweden. Oldest of four children, all still living, he smiles, "In my family we don't die till we're 100 years old." His father became a contractor in Stockholm, after giving up on farming. ("I've always felt like a farmer's boy," says Gunnar, though he was only 8 when the family moved.) He briefly practiced law in 1923, after graduating from the University of Stockholm; four years later he received a doctorate in economics.
The Myrdals first gained prominence in 1934 with their jointly written Crisis in the Population Question, about the low birthrate in Sweden. They called for loans and allotments to encourage married couples to have children, and proudly point out today that virtually all of their suggestions became part of Sweden's social reform policy. Alva later chaired a committee that drew up a pre-feminist document for Sweden's Social Democratic party, suggesting that marriage laws be made more flexible and that unmarried couples shouldn't be discriminated against legally.
At home, the Myrdals had three children: son Jan, 53, a left-wing author; Sissela, 45, a Harvard lecturer on medical ethics, author of Lying and wife of Harvard President Derek Bok; and Kaj, 43, a union welfare official and wife of a West German professor. The entire family came to the United States in 1938, when Gunnar began research for American Dilemma. He had been recruited by the Carnegie Corporation, which wanted a qualified outsider to study U.S. race relations.
The 1,483-page book had a profound impact. Chief Justice Earl Warren cited it in the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing school segregation. A New York Times critic called it "arguably the most important book about America...since de Tocqueville." (Myrdal was not universally saluted, however. Ultra-conservative columnist Westbrook Pegler called him "a typical double-dome brain-truster and a radical Socialist.")
In 1947 Gunnar moved to Geneva as head of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe—a post he held for 10 years. Alva and the children went with him, but she soon became restless. "It's tremendously difficult for a woman with interests of her own to be the wife of a diplomat," Alva says. "It's very hard not to interfere."
Her dilemma ended in 1949, when the U.N. named her to head its social affairs department in New York, the first woman appointed to a major U.N. directorship. Then she shifted to Paris in 1951 to work for UNESCO, and in 1955 became Sweden's ambassador to India.
Despite separations of as long as eight months, the Myrdals saw each other as often as possible. When Alva was in India, Gunnar spent winters there, gathering information for his three-volume study on poverty, Asian Drama, published in 1968. After Alva returned to Stockholm from New Delhi in 1961, she began her disarmament work, both as a Swedish cabinet minister and as delegate to the Disarmament Conference in Geneva. Gunnar took up teaching again.
In 1973 they were visiting fellows at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara. The next year he taught at City College of New York, she at MIT. They spent 1977 at the University of Wisconsin, 1978 at the University of Texas. Gunnar says, "Nowhere are the ideals of democracy so explicit [as in the U.S.]. In that way, I feel American." Still, he has never hesitated to criticize the U.S. on subjects ranging from Vietnam to its "lavish food consumption" (in his Nobel lecture) to its Presidents. Jimmy Carter, he told Women's Wear Daily in June, "has this Georgia crowd. He has this talk with God. I just wonder what God is saying to him now."
As perhaps befits an octogenarian professor, Gunnar is occasionally forgetful. The Harvard Club in New York City suspended his membership privileges in 1975 when he failed to pay a $163.50 bill. Intellectually he is as aggressive as ever. He's working on a new manuscript, How Sweden Is Governed, in addition to An American Dilemma Revisited, an update that he says will show "significant but not sufficient" U.S. progress in race relations. Alva has maintained her interest in multilateral disarmament. "I take it as an obligation," she wrote this April in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, "to voice the feelings of anxiety and frustration—yes, the smoldering resentment—so common among the peoples of Europe because they are drawn into war risks that are not of their own making." Not encouraged by recent developments, she now adds, "Political crises such as the shameful one in Afghanistan should not stand in the way of negotiations about practical gradual measures that can forestall even worse crises."
Even though both suffer from hip problems and are among Sweden's more prosperous citizens—they created a $300,000 foundation to subsidize artists and writers in 1973—they will not, on principle, employ live-in servants. "Able-bodied adults should manage for themselves," Alva says. They share housework and meal preparations. (Their favorite cuisine is "French nouvelle with international touches," says Alva.)
The routine is similar at their Stockholm apartment, their converted tannery hideaway in nearby picturesque Mariefred or a cottage on the Baltic island of Gotland, where they holiday. They enjoy entertaining their grandchildren, eight in all, plus a great-grandson. But, says Alva, "We enjoy talking together more than anything else." Gunnar agrees: "Alva is my hobby."
Their separations never caused them to consider ending their marriage. While their careers peaked at different times, "There has never been any jealousy between us," Alva says. "This thing about divorce is very upsetting," Gunnar adds. "People don't realize the great happiness there is in living to be very old and together all the time. The older we get, the closer we are."
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